A few days ago (March 3, 2012) I heard Marshall Brain give a
riveting talk to the Stanford Transhumanist Association.
What will be the fate of humanity in a future world
populated by supersmart AIs and robots.
His message: basically, we're toast.
According to Brain, the future will bring increasing unemployment
as broad swaths of humanity are replaced by robots. As a consequence,
wealth will continue to concentrate in the hands of a privileged few,
with the great majority (the 99%) being forced into grinding poverty.
(You've heard this before from, say, Karl Marx - but it gets even more bleak.)
As the AIs become ever more powerful they may come to regard
us first as chimpanzees, then as chickens, and finally as bacteria.
How will the AIs deal with us? Possibilities include extermination,
zoos, prisons, and tailor-made virtual reality utopias
(Heavenly or Eden-like versions of The Matrix.)
Scary stuff, but is it true? Yeah, it might happen.
In a brief chat afterward, I told him the best
I could see for humanity in a post-Singularity world
was planet Earth as a retirement home for humanity - watched over
by "machines of loving grace." Perhaps not the exuberant vision
that you're used to, but not that different from real life.
Now, you get old and die, but you get to see
an improved, next generation carry the torch forward.
Post-Singularity, it's just that the machines are carrying the torch
(directing planetary affairs, doing the real innovation, and going to the stars.)
Ok, now back to the book. Having been primed for a nonstop trip
to Hell, the vision portrayed in the book was actually a relief. Although the
images of minimum wage employment enforced by a silicon Big Brother
are bleak to my Western eyes, as expertly portrayed by Marshall,
they might be a welcome relief to many in Asian sweatshops
(think of the rash of suicides at Foxconn.)
Toward the end of this novella, he transitions to a far more
optimistic, alternative future with greatly expanded freedom and opportunities.
That alternative society (also involving tight integration with and supervision by
AIs) is described in fascinating detail.
The work is a detailed dystopian extrapolation in the tradition of
Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World. The technical details are as expertly
and believably detailed as one would expect from the inventor of HowStuffWorks.
Brain is a social critic to be taken seriously, and this is an engaging work.
While I enjoyed reading a review copy on my Kindle,
the work is also available for free on the internet.
He wants the work to be widely read, and it should be.